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Speedy Fred’s Revolution

Nor was it odd, in 1874, for a young man of Taylor’s social background to enter into an industrial apprenticeship. At the time, only a handful of American schools offered degree programs in mechanical engineering, and few professional engineers had any sort of university training. Moreover, as Taylor himself later wrote, in Philadelphia it had long been “customary for many young men whose parents are well-to-do” to get their start in engineering and industry by learning the ropes on the shop floor. Or, as Kanigel remarks, “Taylor’s apprenticeship had something in common with an executive training program.”

In 1878, after completing his four-year stint at Ferrell & Jones, Taylor moved on to the machine shop at the Midvale Steel Company in Philadelphia, a large, expanding, and innovative steelmaker, where he worked in quick succession as a laborer, shop clerk, and machinist before being named the machine shop’s foreman. At every point along the way, he later claimed, he got along extremely well with his fellow workers—so well, in fact, that for a long time, he was able to conceal from them that he was a gentleman’s son. Even when, as a foreman, he became tyrannical with his men and made them angry, Taylor believed that he retained their friendship and respect. By living intimately with ordinary toilers, he said, he learned to value their company, to understand their vernacular, and to recognize their virtues and vices. To underscore his working-class affinities, he would sometimes litter his speech with shop-floor profanity, most memorably (and, though he meant to be serious, hilariously) during a series of highly publicized lectures on scientific management he delivered at Harvard late in his career. In one lecture, he observed that “the working man and the college professor have fundamentally the same feeling, the same motives, the same ambitions.”

Yet if Taylor tried to act like one of the boys, he never truly became one of them. When the day was over and the workers went back to their humble neighborhoods, he returned to his parents’ comfortable household, where he would dine with their well-connected friends, including the owners of Midvale Steel. There is no evidence that he ever visited his coworkers at home or met their families. He closely observed working people, but only as factory mates or employees; and he would always think about workers in those terms.

There was, moreover, much about working-class life that exasperated the refined young machinist. A confirmed teetotaler (he abstained from coffee and tea as well as tobacco and alcohol), Taylor had no use for saloons and no sympathy for workingmen who wasted their wages there. He also disapproved of certain shop-floor conventions, above all the skilled workers’ habitual refusal to work at their maximum capacity—a practice he described as “soldiering.”4 Working under the piece-rate system prevailing in American industry, Midvale’s machinists ostensibly earned more money the more they produced. If they produced too much, however, the boss would cut the rate in order to save on labor costs. Under the circumstances, it made perfect sense for the men to “soldier,” that is, to perform just enough work that would qualify for the highest rate.

Taylor later observed that men have a “natural instinct and tendency” to take things easy. But at Midvale, he saw skilled workers systematically restricting their output and putting pressure on their colleagues to do the same. He saw men who believed that, as the actual producers of goods, they and not their employers should determine how much and how fast they worked. (“Mustn’t give the boss more than his money’s worth,” in Dos Passos’s phrase.) Because these workers had technical knowledge and dexterity, which the employers lacked, they could enforce their own work rules with virtual impunity. But Taylor could only comprehend these arrangements as wasteful malingering.

So long as Taylor was an ordinary machinist, he went along quietly with the practice of soldiering. After being named a gang boss at Midvale, however, he was determined to get his men to work harder, convinced that they were slacking off. “Charm,” Kanigel notes, “wasn’t in his repertoire,” and so Taylor threatened and cajoled and humiliated the men under him, earning their hatred as “a tyrant” and “a nigger driver.” For nearly two years, he battled hard, winning his employers’ endorsement of his proposals but creating a pervasive atmosphere of resentment on the shop floor. Sometime around the fall of 1880, in search of more effective and less arbitrary disciplinary tools, he asked one of Midvale’s owners, William Sellers, for permission to conduct experiments that would impartially determine the maximum capacity of the firm’s metal-cutting machines. Sellers was a former president of Philadelphia’s distinguished scientific organization, the Franklin Institute, and an experimenter himself, and he backed Taylor’s project. Taylor originally thought that his experiments would take six months. He would wind up experimenting for more than twenty years at Midvale and elsewhere on a wide range of industrial procedures.

3.

Taylor was hardly the first person to contend that systematizing industrial work procedures could advance productivity and add to the sum of human happiness. In England in the first half of the nineteenth century, Charles Babbage had insisted that proper regulation of what he called the “domestic economy” of factory labor was as important to an enterprise’s success as the introduction of machines. In Europe during the 1880s and 1890s, mounting concern about the exhausting effects of factory production on workers spurred the emergence of a full-fledged “science of work,” whose devotees conducted various experiments to determine which work procedures would best conserve human energy. In America entrepreneur- technicians like Sellers—and many anonymous foremen and mechanics—had long been improving factory operations and work procedures in more practical and piecemeal ways, such as Sellers’s introduction of a standardized screw thread design which allowed the bolts from one shop to match those from any other. And although Kanigel says little directly on the matter, Taylor must have been well aware of at least some of these attempts to marry factory production to science.

Taylor’s innovations, however, were at once more meticulous than earlier efforts had been and more grandiose, commensurate with the burgeoning growth of America’s industry at the end of the nineteenth century. Determined to check the ruinous effects of cutthroat competition and to stabilize prices, the nation’s chief industrialists had begun reorganizing their enterprises into large integrated corporations, which concentrated production into huge plants, along the lines of Andrew Carnegie’s massive Homestead Works, the largest steelmaking plant in the world. The high costs of building and maintaining the new plants and their expensive equipment required that the operations be run at full capacity; and that requirement in turn impelled employers to exert more efficient control over the process of production and greatly to expand their markets in order to absorb the increased volume of goods.

Only by reorganizing the entire enterprise, from providing raw materials to selling the finished products, could the new business empires survive. Although Taylor began modestly, by revamping a single firm’s machine shop, he quickly advanced to speculating about a more systematic overhaul of factory labor itself, along the lines which the new industrial order, with its emphasis on high productivity, demanded. He would improve the quality of the plant’s machines, to allow production to proceed around the clock. He would scrap the old piece rate in favor of a new differential rate that would reward those workers who produced the most. He would divide the work of skilled labor into carefully timed operations that would put an end to soldiering and give management the upper hand in raising levels of production.

Taylor’s innovations also coincided with the growing professionalism among America’s engineers. In 1881, at the suggestion of the president of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken (yet another family friend), Taylor enrolled in Stevens’s mechanical engineering program; and though he rarely turned up in class, he received his degree two years later. In 1884, he joined the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (of which he would, in later years, be named president), and he began attending the group’s biannual conventions, which gave him important contacts and outlets for publicizing his ideas.

Obsessed as he was by his new vocation, Taylor did not abandon either his roots or his lifelong passion for sports. In September 1881, at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island, he and a Germantown friend teamed up to win the United States Open tennis doubles championship. In 1884, he married Louise Spooner, an eminently respectable Germantown girl whom he had known all his life. But always, his work at Midvale took precedence. By the late 1880s, his experiments had progressed to the point where he was able to print up cards detailing each and every step in a machinist’s job and how it ought to be performed. According to Taylor’s calculations, Midvale’s employers could substitute relatively unskilled and inexpensive workers for skilled workers, improve productivity five to six fold, raise wages (marginally), and increase profits (enormously).

In 1890, Taylor resigned from Midvale and moved with Louise to central Maine, expecting to make a fortune from his investment in a new branch of a papermaking concern founded by some well-connected Washington officials. He tried, with indifferent results, to adapt his Midvale improvisations with piece work and differential rates to pulp processing, but the Panic of 1893 ruined the paper company, and the next several years were an unsettled period in Taylor’s life. After returning to Germantown, he set himself up as a freelance managerial consultant—the first such consultant in American history—and he advised such firms as the William Camp & Sons shipbuilders of Philadelphia (which described itself as “the greatest naval arsenal in the Western Hemisphere”) on how to improve their metal-cutting procedures. Only in 1898, however, did he land a job that matched his expanding ambitions—a commission from the Bethlehem Iron Company (soon to become Bethlehem Steel) to help boost the firm’s productivity.

At Bethlehem, Taylor encountered Henry Noll, an indefatigable pig-iron loader who (under the pseudonym that Taylor later gave him, “Schmidt”) would eventually become a living emblem of scientific management. As Taylor later explained in countless speeches, he had been looking for a specific type of workman—“a man of the mentally sluggish type…a man so stupid that he was unfitted to do [even] most kinds of laboring work”—and Noll, who was athletic and, by reputation, slow-witted, seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Taylor had resolved to prove that, with his scientific methods (and by paying slightly higher wages), he could persuade the dullest of men to perform labor far beyond their supposed capacities. And so he did, he later proclaimed, by inducing Noll to increase his pig-iron load from thirteen to forty-five tons a day while giving him a wage hike from $1.15 to $1.70 a day. In all, Taylor exulted, he had shown that he could more than triple a common laborer’s output, in exchange for a pay raise of just over 30 percent—which, in turn, meant reducing labor cost per ton by more than half.

  1. 4

    According to Kanigel, the term is American and nautical, and it dates back to the early nineteenth century. Customarily, soldiers being transported by ship were exempted from performing seamen’s chores—hence, among sailors, shirking became known as “soldiering.”

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